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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of October 11, 2013

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
October 11, 2013

A taxi driver looks at the price as he fills the tank of his car near a board showing recently increased prices at a gas station in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on February 20, 2011. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters) A taxi driver looks at the price as he fills the tank of his car near a board showing recently increased prices at a gas station in Shenyang, Liaoning province, on February 20, 2011. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

Will Piekos and Sharone Tobias look at the top five stories in Asia this week.

1. China surpasses U.S. in oil imports. According to EIA data, China has surpassed the United States in oil imports, taking the number one spot. The United States still uses more oil than China, consuming an average of 18.6 million barrels per day compared to China’s 10.9 billion, but imports less thanks to increased domestic production. According to analysis by the Wall Street Journal, China’s increased imports of Middle Eastern oil have caused tensions with the United States, because it leaves the U.S. navy to continue policing trade choke points for China’s oil shipments without much help from Chinese forces.

2. Kerry focuses on South China Sea disputes at summits. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders to come to an agreement on disputes in the South China Sea during a meeting of the East Asia Summit in Brunei. Beijing responded by warning the United States to stay out of the disputes; China has resisted negotiating territorial disputes with ASEAN, an organization with ten member states, preferring bilateral negotiations in which it usually has the upper hand. China claims nearly all of the disputed territory in the South China Sea, competing with claims by Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Beijing agreed earlier this year to agree to hold a dialogue towards a “code of conduct” with the other nations, though critics argue that these dialogues lack substance.

3. Fukushima radiation levels hit a two-year high. Radiation levels in seawater near Japan’s damaged nuclear plant jumped to thirteen times the previous day’s reading, reaching its highest point since 2011. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is in charge of the plant, said that the increased radiation levels were a result of nearby construction. Also this week, six workers were exposed to radiation after a pipe connected to the water treatment system was mistakenly detached. TEPCO, which stores saltwater to cool reactors, has struggled to contain the radioactive water since the power station was hit by a massive tsunami in March 2011.

4. Kim Jong Un replaces military chief again. North Korean media referenced a new chief of general staff of the Korean People’s Army, signaling that the country’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has once again switched the head of the military. The new chief, Ri Yong Gil, is the Hermit Kingdom’s fourth since Kim came into power in December 2011, and little is known about him. His predecessor is believed responsible for attacks on South Korea in 2010 that killed fifty people, so some hope that that his removal represents a move away from a more hard-line approach to South Korea by Pyongyang. Analysts suggest that the move solidifies Kim’s grip on power and the military. Unrelated, North Korea granted permission this week for the mother of Kenneth Bae to visit her son, an American who has been held in North Korea for nearly a year and is in failing health.

5. U.S., Vietnam ink nuclear deal. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnam Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh initialed a nuclear agreement while at the East Asia Summit this past week. If the deal is signed by President Obama and passed by Congress, it would allow American companies to sell nuclear fuel and technology to Vietnam, and Vietnam would be prohibited from enriching or reprocessing plutonium or uranium. Vietnam has plans to build as many as thirteen nuclear power stations in the next two decades; said Secretary Kerry, “Vietnam has the second-largest market, after China, for nuclear power in East Asia, and our companies can now compete.”

Bonus: National Cricket Fighting Championships held in Beijing. More than twenty teams from across China competed in the two-day National Cricket Fighting Championships this week. The crickets, with only a one-hundred-day lifespan, are in their prime in autumn; they are fed a high-protein diet and trained regularly in preparation for their bouts. The traditional Chinese sport is more than 1,000 years old, and the rules of cricket fighting date back to the thirteenth century.

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